Crystals from chaos: Physicists observe new form of carbon

August 16, 2012
Simulated structures showing the starting material (left) of carbon-60 “buckyballs” (magenta) and m-xylene solvent (blue) and its superhard form (right) after being compressed by more than 400,000 atmospheres of pressure inside a diamond anvil cell. Although the crushed buckyballs are amorphous, the solvent preserved the material’s long-range crystalline order. Image by Lin Wang, Carnegie Institution of Washington

( -- A team of scientists led by Carnegie's Lin Wang has observed a new form of very hard carbon clusters, which are unusual in their mix of crystalline and disordered structure. The material is capable of indenting diamond. This finding has potential applications for a range of mechanical, electronic, and electrochemical uses. The work is published in Science on Aug. 17.

is the fourth-most-abundant element in the universe and takes on a wide variety of forms—the honeycomb-like graphene, the pencil "lead" graphite, diamond, cylindrically structured nanotubes, and hollow spheres called fullerenes.

Some forms of carbon are crystalline, meaning that the structure is organized in repeating atomic units. Other forms are amorphous, meaning that the structure lacks the long-range order of crystals. Hybrid products that combine both crystalline and amorphous elements had not previously been observed, although scientists believed they could be created.

Wang's team—including Carnegie's Wenge Yang, Zhenxian Liu, Stanislav Sinogeikin, and Yue Meng—started with a substance called carbon-60 cages, made of highly organized balls of carbon constructed of pentagon and hexagon rings bonded together to form a round, hollow shape. An organic xylene solvent was put into the spaces between the balls and formed a new structure. They then applied pressure to this combination of carbon cages and solvent, to see how it changed under different stresses.

An optical photomicrograph of a diamond anvil surface  shows two “ring crack” dents (magenta arrows) after it was used to compress a buckeyball/xylene material with nearly 330,000 atmospheres of pressure.  The cracks indicate that the crushed material is “superhard”., that is, nearly as hard as diamond, the world's hardest bulk material. Image by Lin Wang, Carnegie Institution of Washington

At relatively low pressure, the carbon-60's cage structure remained. But as the pressure increased, the cage structures started to collapse into more amorphous carbon clusters. However, the amorphous clusters still occupy their original sites, forming a lattice structure.

The team discovered that there is a narrow window of pressure, about 320,000 times the normal atmosphere, under which this new structured carbon is created and does not bounce back to the cage structure when pressure is removed. This is crucial for finding practical applications for the new material going forward.

This material was capable of indenting the diamond anvil used in creating the high-pressure conditions. This means that the material is superhard.

If the solvent used to prepare the new form of carbon is removed by heat treatment, the material loses its lattice periodicity, indicating that that the solvent is crucial for maintaining the chemical transition that underlies the new . Because there are many similar solvents, it is theoretically possible that an array of similar, but slightly different, carbon lattices could be created using this pressure method.

"We created a new type of carbon material, one that is comparable to diamond in its inability to be compressed," Wang said. "Once created under extreme pressures, this material can exist at normal conditions, meaning it could be used for a wide array of practical applications."

Explore further: New form of superhard carbon observed

More information: "Long-Range Ordered Carbon Clusters: A Crystalline Material with Amorphous Building Blocks," by L. Wang et al, Science, 2012.

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2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 16, 2012
Could this be used as another bulk construction material? Say as a replacement for steel?
3 / 5 (2) Aug 16, 2012
Arcbird asked, "Could this be used as another bulk construction material? Say as a replacement for steel?"

Not in our lifetimes, and maybe never.

Making buckeyballs is expensive. Placing materials under 330,000 atmospheres of pressure is extremely expensive, and current methods can only apply such pressures to microscopic amounts of material.

Per ounce, a material like the one described in the article would cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to produce. Industrial scaling might reduce the cost somewhat, but there's no hope for mass-producing a material like this at costs comparable to producing steel.
not rated yet Aug 16, 2012
No hope right now, but knowing it exists, and deriving its mechanical and electric and electronic properties will encourage research into production. Buckyballs used to be expensive and exotic.

My guess for future production would be a hot cavitation process.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2012
To produce a synthetic diamond, you need on order of 10 Gigapascals of pressure. That's about 1.5 million pounds per square inch.

One atmosphere of pressure is about 15psi.

To produce this new material, you need over 4.5 million pounds per square inch. Given that this process is probably faster than synthetic diamond, lets assume that the price is on par.

low quality, industrial grade diamond dust goes for as low as $150 an ounce.

At that rate, a relatively small 2-ton I-beam would cost...
4.8 Million dollars.

Which is ludicrous.

A 2-ton steel I-beam goes for about $3000.
We're looking at over 3 orders of magnitude.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2012
So in conclusion, I expect they'll start using this as a building material just as soon as they start using diamond for structural beams.
3.3 / 5 (3) Aug 16, 2012
So in conclusion, I expect they'll start using this as a building material just as soon as they start using diamond for structural beams.

It will probably be used in blades and drill bits.

Also, "hardness" and "tensile strength" have little to do with one another.

Graphene and ordinary nano-tubes are probably more suited to replacing i-beams anyway, and don't require high pressure to produce. I think an article on here several months back suggested they were up to making graphene sheets several (ten?) centimeters across. Scale that up to 200 centimeters and you're ready to replace plywood in homes, or any number of things like the fuselage of an aircraft or whatever.

If you need both harness and tensile strength, I suppose you could create alternating layers in composite fashion...
5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2012
"Wang's teamincluding Carnegie's Wenge Yang, Zhenxian Liu, Stanislav Sinogeikin, and Yue Mengstarted with a substance called carbon-60 cages, made of highly organized balls of carbon constructed of pentagon and hexagon rings bonded together to form a round, hollow shape."

That's a rather intricate way of saying "molecular soccer ball," though I still prefer "Buckminsterfullerene."
not rated yet Aug 19, 2012
they will spray it on rounds of depleted uranium, so that it goes through 3 tanks instead of two....

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